Talking Naked (Wine) with Alice Feiring

by Jeff Harding
January 2012

After reading and reviewing Naked Wine and following her bon mots on twitter, I was excited to meet the outspoken Alice Feiring, a leading proponent of natural wine. I finally got my chance when we sat down at New York City's Waverly Inn, to discuss her writing, the Georgian translation of her book, and women in viticulture.

Jeff Harding: First of all it’s a pleasure to meet you, Alice, and could you say for the record how to pronounce your last name.

Alice Feiring: (laughs) It’s pronounced ”firing.” It’s always been ”firing.” In fact my mother once said we should probably change it to “fearing,” just so people will pronounce it right.

JH: Do you consider yourself a wine critic or a wine writer?

AF: I’m a writer. I’m always critical, this is true, it’s my nature. But I’m a writer because I’m a bit of an idiot savant. I can’t imagine doing anything else but writing and wine became my subject.

JH: When you taste wine, how is it different than, say, how a buyer tastes?

AF: Well, I’m not looking to sell. I’m just looking for what I want and not thinking about the market, what I can sell, or how the market will take to a certain wine. The way I approach wine is by keeping it in its cultural context. I don’t need a story to write about a wine or recommend a wine, but knowing how that wine came into being arms me with information to give to the reader. Also it just interests me knowing how a wine became a wine. And sometimes it’s just, “Hey that’s a good wine, I like to drink it!”

JH: What are your favorite wine books?

AF: There’s a wonderful book that was written around the turn of the last century, In the Vine Country, by Edith Somerville [1893]. It’s about these two Irish ladies who are cousins, they’re probably lesbians but back then they couldn’t be out, so they were “cousins.” It is a fabulous book about going to Bordeaux. Also, there’s Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch. Total classic. I still go back to that, and I find so much information there. I actually referenced it a lot in Naked Wine. I just read another old book called Bouquet, by G.B. Stern, about two couples in the 1920s. One couple is a diehard Bordeaux fan and the other, a diehard fan of Burgundy. It’s pretty funny to see that same fight go on back then: It’s Burgundy, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Bordeaux, as the couples try to convince each other [while] driving through France. It’s a wonderful view into the food and wine of the day and what the vineyards were like then. I did like, of course, Terry’s book, [Reading between the Wines by Terry Theise]. Terry is a poet and his subject is wine. That book was extremely poetic.

JH: Can you talk a little about Naked Wine being translated into Georgian?

AF: There’s a great deal of natural wine being made in Georgia. And they have a mission to keep it from globalization. The rights to my book were bought privately and it’s a limited edition and I receive no royalties. They want a book that will show the people making wine in the qvevry—the buried amphora—that there is a greater movement which they are a part of and that they shouldn’t go the industrial route, but rather make wine as well as they can within these parameters. And so that’s the hope.

JH: So it encourages them to keep doing what they’re doing. It’s very generous of you to forego the royalties. I read on your blog that you recently visited Georgia; can you tell me more about that?

AF: I love their wines and I’m actually pretty invested in doing what I can to let them know that they’re doing great stuff, they just don’t know it. They’re vulnerable to winemaking consultants coming in and pushing for more international styles. I visited a bunch of people in Georgia, and every country home has their oven for bread and their little winemaking room where there are three, four, or five of these qvevry that can last up to 60 or 80 years. It’s a qvevry as opposed to amphora, and they can get very upset because an amphora is any clay vessel, and qvevry are specifically shaped vessels with a point at the bottom which help to keep the seeds and stems at the bottom. As a natural clarifier, it funnels the liquid into a clear juice, and is meant to be buried in the ground. It’s still quite traditional in Georgia and this is the home method of making wine. I had gorgeous wines this way: slightly crushed, [poured] into amphora, sealed up, opened up eight months to a year and half later. That’s it, winemaking done. That is natural wine making. No sulfur. Sulfur is still considered to be the devil there. It’s very Old World.

JH: At the StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress this year, our theme is “Origins and Frontiers." I'm fascinated with the history of winemaking, and I recently spoke to Francesca Planeta, of Planeta Wines, and they are experimenting with a wine that Julius Caesar used to drink. Do you see more winemakers experimenting with ancient methods of winemaking?

AF: It’s like Baldo Cappellano, who died in 2009, said: “The more there is fake, the more there is a need for real.” And that is exactly what happens. At the point where everything has gotten so commercial and so fake, there is always this reaction to go as simple as possible.

JH: Reading your book, I was so impressed with how knowledgeable you are about all these incredible details. How did you get to where you are, in terms of education?

AF: There’s so still much that I don’t know! But my knowledge of wine making and wine really took off when I spent a lot of time in the vines. Until then it was really baby stuff for me. It was all intellectual and it really was about wines that I liked to drink and recommend, and my palate, which I think was reasonable. At least I knew often what I was drinking and why I was drinking it. I started doing more investigation and that opened up the whole world of wine technology. And that became my beat. Then I realized I couldn’t write about a wine really well unless I went to visit and spend time not just in the winery, but in the vines.

JH: I saw you posted on Twitter about Whole Foods selling Certified Organic European wines but there is no such certification in Europe. Can you explain?

AF: I wrote a controversial blog about it which actually got me into quite a bit of trouble back in the fall because I did an event there in Austin and I was really surprised because I found the wines I was pouring were not available on their shelves and I was very disappointed by that. Actually I’d love to do more events at Whole Foods and my books should be sold at Whole Foods. I mean if I’m good enough to do an event for them, then they should do a week’s special and sell the wines I poured. And there weren’t that many wines that were natural or hardly even organic. So I knew it was only a matter of time before industrial organic was coming down the pike. I did more investigation about these wines that are certified organic wines. They don’t have that category in Europe and these wines are European. They actually had them certified in America, which is complicated, but it can be done. So these wines are only certified organic in America. I don’t know how exactly these wines are made and they say “no added yeast” but they are actually allowed to add yeast as long as it’s organic yeast.

JH: So how do you define natural wine? I like that you call wine in your book “naked” because natural means many different things.

AF: Well, I did take that from Jules Chauvet, and that quote in his interview that said wines must be naked. Naked wine is unadorned. Just transparent. And my definition, it’s kind of funny because I’ve noticed some of the reviews said, “Read the whole book and she never offered a definition.” And I think it’s that people don’t want to accept the definition. It’s not that I haven’t or other people haven’t given a definition, they don’t want to accept it! Nothing added, nothing taken away. And there you go. It’s an ideal, it’s a philosophy. I like the idea that it’s not going to get more rigid than that, though someone will make it more rigid. Because there has to be wiggle room. It’s wine, it’s not a cookie cutter process. And it has to work for the winemaker. It was Gravner who said to really make a natural wine somebody has to be a natural person. How gorgeous is that? You only know that if you go visit. And you also know it if you taste it. I’ve tasted so many so-called natural wines, and thought, “I don’t know about this. How are they making something so four-square if it’s natural?”

JH: I was struck by reading somewhere that agriculture has to be sustainable for the farmer, too. If you don’t use pesticides or sulfur and the crop fails or wine goes bad, what do you do?

AF: That was Ridgely Evers. It’s really very interesting that the world has gotten so polarized. There’s so much in-fighting in the wine world right at this second. I’m like, “Hey guys, we all love wine.” Whether or not you’re in the 95-point zone and you’re saying that you love big, ripe wonderful California wines and I don’t, that’s OK. There’s room for everybody. I’m not saying your wine sucks. I’m saying, “These are the wine that I like.” But it is so polarized. And I do want people to be able to make a living. The people that I write about really need to make a living because they live very close. So if something happens and they need to do something, I’m not going to say, “Oh, my god!” They almost lost their vintage and they had to add more sulfur than usual. That’s fine.

JH: I see more female wine makers, sommeliers, wine reps etc., but I don’t see many women writers. What is it like for a woman visiting Old World winemakers, or just in general being a woman among other male critics and writers?

AF: Well, don’t forget Lettie Teague, Jancis Robinson, and Elin McCoy, who wrote Robert Parker’s biography—she’s a smart cookie. But I don’t think it’s so much a problem being a woman writer in the wine business. It’s a problem being me as me, because they don’t get the crap that I get, and I wasn’t prepared to be me. So that’s the bigger question. Some of the stuff I get is directed to me as a woman, and a guy won’t get that. There’s another thing, there’s definitely an old boys club in wine writing and women are not part of that. And as far as tasting, I don’t get invited to the collector dinner tastings which my fellow male writers always get invited to, and as a result I don’t get to taste the really good wines.

JH: Do you think that’s because you’re woman or because you speak your mind?

AF: No I think it’s because I’m a woman, because Elin doesn’t do it, Lettie doesn’t do it, get invited that is. We haven’t really talked about this but no, it’s a guy thing.

JH: When you go to some of these big tastings and you find yourself one of the few females in the room, is that daunting? Is it uncomfortable? Do you find acceptance?

AF: Oh yeah, that’s not a problem. Actually a lot more so now because people tend to know who I am.

JH: And has this changed since you started out?

AF: I don’t think so. But I do think the best assignments get passed on to men. I remember speaking to Jancis about this and she says she hasn’t had much of an issue. I think the only reason I’ve had a hard time is because I’m the most outspoken and that is putting your neck out.